While we have not heard about a smallpox vaccine with rat blood in it, the vaccine does contain monkey kidney cells and human fetal tissue as stabilizers. These are both non-kosher. However, the smallpox vaccine is not taken orally. Rather it is an inoculation. There is no prohibition to use these specific non-kosher substances, so long as they are not eaten.
An interesting halachic opinion by Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski states that if a man is fed through a tube directly into his stomach, then he is allowed to be fed non-kosher foods. Similarly, a diabetic can use insulin, even though it contains substances derived from pigs, since it is injected and not taken orally.
There is no prohibition in using medicines which contain forbidden ingredients if they are administered by injection, suppository, enema, medicated bandage, and the like, since they are not eaten.
However, if the medicated bandage contained milk and meat, then it would be prohibited, even if it is not administered orally, because substances containing milk and meat together are not only forbidden to be eaten, but a person is not to receive any enjoyment from them whatsoever. For instance, one is not allowed to eat the flesh of a pig, but a Jew could make a football from its skin. However, a football made by compacting meat and milk would be prohibited.
Medicines containing ingredients that are prohibited to be eaten, that must be taken orally, should preferably be replaced with medicines comprised of permitted ingredients, as long as they are equally effective.
Of course, if a person’s life depends on receiving an oral medicine that contains non-kosher ingredients, he is certainly allowed to have it. Even if there is no danger to a person’s life, and a non-kosher medicine is prescribed, there are a few instances where its usage would be allowed. For instance, if the medicine has no nutritional value and is not considered fit for human consumption, nor for that of a dog, then it is allowed. Medicines in capsules or medicines which have a bitter taste are examples. Even if an otherwise bitter medicine is coated with sugar, this does not transform it into food and most halachic authorities consider these medicines unfit for a dog. Also, if the forbidden ingredients were altered chemically, or if they have completely dried out, then the medicine is permitted, even if the patient’s life in not in danger.
Since capsules often contain gelatine made from non-kosher ingredients, some halachic authorities prohibit their use. Other authorities permit them. If it is possible to obtain the same medicine, not in capsule form, then it is advisable to obtain it.
It is important to point out the deeper moral aspect of these questions. Once a mother brought her son to the famed Rabbi Akiva Eiger. She complained that the boy wasn’t able to comprehend the Talmudic discussions known as the Tosefot. The rabbi asked if the boy had ever eaten anything not kosher, explaining that non-kosher foods contaminate the brain and damage intellectual reasoning.
May the New Year bring health to all people as it says in the Prophets, “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will hear; then the lame will leap like a ram, and the tongue of the deaf will sing”.
1. Responsa, Achiezer, Vol. 3:61.
2. Encyclopedia of Medicine and Jewish Law, Vol. 3, Pg. 271, edited by Dr. Avraham Steinberg.
3. See Pesachim 24B.
4. Shmirat Shabbat K’ Hilchata, Pg. 460.
5. Responsa, Tzitz Eliezer, Vol 6:16.
6. Ibid, Vol. 10:25, sub-section 2.
7. Isaiah, 35:6.